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Counseling Services - Adjusting 2

Adults Returning to College

Defining Adult Students

The term adult student refers to all learners enrolled in postsecondary institutions who fall outside of the 18-21 year old range.  This group of students who are 22 or older continues to be a growing segment of the campus population.  In the fall of 1993, 58.2% of all (full and part time) college and university students were 22 or older (according to the 1996 Chronicle of Higher Education Survey).  Between 1971 and 1991, the enrollments of students age 25 or older showed a meteoric rise, increasing by 171% (as shown by the National Center for Education Statistics in 1995).

Reasons for the Increase in Adult Students:

The reported rise in the 30+ and older group suggests that career motives are behind the enrollment bulge.  Job displacement, divorce, single-parenting, and skills updating as it helps secure income for the family, are all possible factors for the surge in adult student enrollment.

Strengths That the Adult Learner Brings to Higher Education:

  • The learner is self-directed and internally motivated to learn.
  • Adults bring a life-centered, task-oriented, experience-information orientation to learning.


Personal and Academic Challenges

Economic Barriers

For a large number or adult students, financial difficulty is a central part of their struggle to attend college. They are self-supporting and must assume the cost of tuition in addition to other financial obligations such as mortgage payments or rent, food, transportation, and child care.  Putting family members through leaner times for their decision to enroll may leave the adult student with a sense of regret mixed with shame.

Internal Family Stressors

Parents and friends may criticize the adult student for having divided loyalties and distorted priorities.  Guilt can be imparted by family members who remind the adult student of the social pressures against education for any but the young.   The gender can also come into play.  Society has fairly rigid perceptions about roles appropriate for women - mother, spouse, single parent - and these expectations crystallize as women get older.  When a wife or mother chooses to become a student, she is certain to experience this role-shifting.

Student to Student Tensions

College is usually considered the province of the young.  Adult students are not always welcomed by some younger colleagues and therefore may devalue their younger colleague's commitment to education.  To adult students, traditional-age students may appear less serious about their studies, come to class unprepared, and contribute little to class discussions.  Younger students frequently see adults as monopolizing class and instructor time, as combative about philosophical points in class discussions and are preoccupied with recounting life experiences as learning examples.

Student to Teacher Strains

Because adults bring a wide inventory of experience with them to learning, they do not automatically view their teachers as experts.  Adult students often expect respect from teachers and are not as intimidated as they may have been at a younger age.  In addition, the adult student doesn't necessarily believe everything that faculty say and teach and are not afraid to question their answers.

Some adult students believe that faculty have one set of rules for adults and another set for younger students, and that faculty may expect more from older students.  Other adult students expect more effort and understanding from their professors in the sense that the professor works for the student.  Teaching techniques can be a source of contention between adult students and younger students.  Adult students express a strong preference for interactive, contextual, and facilitative learning. 

Organizational Strains

Static, impersonal, and indifferent academic bureaucracies can be unresponsive to the needs of adult clientele. Non-traditional students appreciate evening and weekend classes, extended lab and library hours, and even comfortable classroom furniture and more accessible facilities to accommodate older bodies and age-related infirmities.

How to Cope With These Unique Issues

The counseling center and academic advising offices can assist you with dealing with the situations that are unique to the adult learner.

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